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UNC Football vs. Mercer: Three Things Learned

The Senior Day blowout win had some good lessons as the season winds down

NCAA Football: Mercer at North Carolina James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Bless you if you braved the game in Chapel Hill yesterday with the conditions. In a game that was officially sold out, the combination of steady rain and cold temperatures kept a lot of people at home for the final home game of the season. It’s a shame, too, because for what the current senior class has gone through, they deserved better weather and a stadium full of people to thank them for their work.

You might think that it’s tough to learn anything in a 56-7 blowout, but you’d be wrong. Let’s take a look at three things learned from yesterday.

Blowout victories are possible

Admit it, you were at least a little worried Mercer was going to hang around longer than they should, weren’t you? It’s excusable when you consider how every other game has gone for this football team this season. Georgia Tech wasn’t decided until well into the third quarter, and that was the only one where fans could relax for the fourth. Combine that plus the State game next weekend and the pressure of needing to win both in order to go to a bowl, and it wouldn't have been shocking to see the Tar Heels start tight.

They didn’t.

The first play from scrimmage saw Mercer turning it over to the Tar Heels, and then Antonio Williams getting Senior Day off to a great start by converting immediately. It didn’t get better for the Bears, as the only other drive for them in the first half that went longer than five plays ended in a failed fake field goal. At one point Sam Howell was 5 for 5 with three touchdowns, and it was clear early that the Tar Heels were focused on winning this game before even thinking about next week.

The Tar Heels needed a “Get Right” game and got it in every way. Sam Howell set the Tar Heel record for touchdowns, and did so as a true freshman, Michael Carter had his season high with 159 yards on only nine carries and scored three touchdowns, Antonio Williams got some real work in allowing the Tar Heels to rest Javonte Williams, and the coaching staff finally got a chance to rest the starters and see what they had behind them in game action. Considering their opponent next week will have had a couple of extra days to rest, this was huge.

Red Zone scoring is also possible

Yes, it’s Mercer. Yes, this is going to artificially inflate their stats, but it was still good to see the Tar Heels convert on all four of their Red Zone opportunities. They entered the game 112th in the country scoring touchdowns inside the 20, and now should get up to at least 106th. You know who’s actually worse now?

The Heels’ opponent next week.

It wasn’t just that they finally converted in the red zone, it was that they did so in multiple ways. Different players were able to get runs for six points, and the Tar heels were able to successfully deploy a rollout to an open tight end, something some people had been screaming for all season. All require different blocking schemes by the offensive line and good execution by the rest of the team. It makes it easier to drill home those successes in practice this week, and gives Phil Longo and Sam Howell more weapons they can feel comfortable with next weekend.

This game won’t cure all of the ills with the Red Zone, but they showed it was at least possible for them to score inside the opponent’s 20.

The Talent is thin behind the first string, but some is there

It was easy to see why so few players had played so many snaps when the coaching staff pulled all the starters in the second half. Carolina’s first stringers were responsible for 49 of the 56 points, as Michael Carter started the half with his 60 yard run. After that drive, the UNC offense mostly stalled and the defensive subs gave up the shutout in a drive that looked alarmingly easy for the Mercer backup Harrison Frost. You could argue about the outcome being decided, but everyone on the field had little playing time and wanted to show they deserved to be out there. Losing the shutout was disappointing.

That said, there is some clear hope in the backfield. The Tar Heels will lose Antonio Williams this year, but Josh Henderson came in to take the lion’s share of the load for the second half and ended up being the second leading rusher behind Carter. All of his 13 carries for 98 yards came in the second half, and he capped it off with a touchdown and 35 yard run. Fans at least got a preview of who will be the new partner in the law firm when Antonio Williams moves on.

Overall, it was a good thing the starters were able to get the second half off as it will be back to normal next weekend.